In its series finale against Penn State on Sunday, the Michigan softball team’s offense exploded, scoring a season-high 17 runs on 13 hits. Yet amidst the ballooning production and excitement, Kelly Christner wasn’t herself at the plate, and hadn’t been for a while.
Despite the Wolverines’ big game, the senior centerfielder had only one hit on the entire weekend. After starting the season on an offensive tear — 22 runs batted in over the first 22 games — Christner didn’t collect another RBI for two weeks, stuck in an offensive slump.
But Tuesday, not only did Christner make her presence at the plate known again, she was Michigan’s sole saving grace offensively.
Christner went 2-for-2 against Central Michigan (2-1 Mid-American Conference, 17-9 overall), contributing both of the Wolverines’ RBI, with a third-inning solo shot to right field and a single up the middle in the fifth frame. Her production lifted No. 20 Michigan (3-0 Big Ten, 23-7-1 overall) past the Chippewas, 2-0, in a midweek pitcher’s duel en route to the Wolverines’ ninth-straight victory.
“(Christner) was just locked in,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “We needed somebody to come through for us, and we’re very pleased that Kelly did.”
Amidst its short one-game break from Big Ten competition, Michigan appeared to have backtracked — dealing with many of the same struggles that plagued the team early on in the season. The Wolverines demonstrated weak swings at the plate and did not have a hit until the third inning, leaving numerous runners stranded on base. These flaws were underscored in the seventh inning, when despite loading the bases with no outs, Michigan couldn’t score.
“We really couldn’t seem to get our kids to lock in and to stay with the game plan to try to drive our outside pitch to the righties,” Hutchins said. “We took a lot of really feeble swings, not what we’ve been working on, and not what I think we’ve gotten better at. We really didn’t look like we had a great edge to play today.”
Despite the poor offensive performance, the Wolverines still ended the game with a victory due to Christner’s RBI. A pair of hits and a single posted by senior shortstop Abby Ramirez and sophomore catcher Alex Sobczak, respectively, were Michigan’s only other hits on the day.
Central Michigan, on the other hand, couldn’t find a way onto the scoreboard. Aware that the Chippewas would start ace right-hander Rachel Knapp — who touts 135 strikeouts on the season — Hutchins decided to pitch senior right-hander Megan Betsa for a second-straight game.
“They pitched their ace,” Hutchins said. “And we pitched ours.”
And as Hutchins’ prediction of intensity from the opposition in the circle and a low-scoring game became reality, Betsa verified that she was primed for the job.
The senior right-hander threw her fifth straight complete-game shutout, delivering nine strikeouts and allowing only one hit. The ace has found her groove as of late, striking out 68 batters and allowing no runs over her past 36 innings in the circle.
Her prowess shined in the third inning, striking out the side, and then again in the fourth when she got out of a two-runner, one-out jam, tossing back-to-back strikeouts that allowed the Wolverines to leave the frame unscathed.
“Honestly, (Betsa) did amazing, which isn’t unusual for her,” Christner said. “She goes out there and just attacks them from the start, and it really just sets the tone.”
Though Michigan managed to escape the game through the tenacity of Betsa and Christner, the Wolverines will need more contributions throughout the lineup when they face tougher opponents. They know that relying on a sole player to produce offensively is an unsustainable practice.
“I think we could have made an adjustment (to Knapp) earlier,” Christner said. “You need to know what (the pitcher) is going to throw you and what her process is. We have to find better ways to get on base, find longer at-bats and find better at-bats overall.”